Science meets art

How was the world born? What are we made of? What's the purpose of a flower? Art and science together shape our experience of the universe and everything in it. They are part of humankind's creative drive.

Artists and scientists are driven by a curiosity to uncover sources of hidden knowledge, and to represent and understand what we can't physically experience with our senses – to always look beyond.

This gallery will take you through a series of concepts that weave together artistic and scientific discovery. Each space addresses a theme in physics. Why it matters to the world, how it can be displayed in a scientific diagram, and its reflection in art, from ancient to modern.


For artists and scientists, light provides our richest connection to the physical world. Large parts of our brain - including its outgrowth, our eyes - are specialized for visual processing. In science as well as art, light doesn't just make the world visible, it holds the world together.

But what is it made of? In the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars started experimenting with optics, seeing light as its own separate entity. By the 1600s, across Europe and the Islamic world, there were heavily debated theories about what light is. It is a particle? Is it a wave? Light is an electromagnetic radiation, and this answer took hundreds of years to arrive at. Light is essential to our survival but the exciting thing is how much is left to be discovered about it.


Richard Feynman shared the 1965 Nobel Prize with physicists Sim-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger for their work on quantum electrodynamics, changing our understanding of the interactions between elementary particles. For Feynman, the prize recognised his by-then famous diagrams, which allowed scientists to calculate interaction probabilities that weren't possible with numerical approaches alone.  

The 1965 Nobel Prize
The 1965 More about the 1965 prize


Self-portrait with dishevelled hair, 1628

Rembrandt painted this self-portrait when he was in his early 20s. Instead of focusing only on shapes and surfaces, he calls out the light itself. He uses the chiaroscuro method, a dramatic use of light and shadow that dates to the Renaissance. 

Some of the biggest artistic shifts can be tied to their scientific contemporaries' theories of light. In the 1600s, painting was inspired by new theories of light and matter. Artists chose more naturalistic styles and humanistic subjects, often with earthly, rather than divine light sources. Painters were inspired by the growing popularity of theater, where lighting was part of the performance. Rembrandt’s experiments with light gave rise to a technique called “Rembrandt lighting,” which is still used in photography and film.

See more at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Read more about the artist at the UK National Gallery

Rembrandt, Van Rijn. Self portrait with dishevelled hair, 
1628. Rijksmuseum , Amsterdamn.


Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232, 2017

Starlight has inspired creative curiosity from prehistoric times. Sailors have needed stars for navigation. Astronomical events marked the passing of the seasons, and stars and constellations had spiritual significance. There are optical devices dating back nearly 4000 years, demonstrating a deeply human impulse to see beyond what the eyes can perceive.

This image comes from one of the Very Large Telescopes, the ESO telescope Antu in Chile, and is of NGC 1232, a grand spiral galaxy bigger than our own Milky Way. As part of the constellation Eridanus, it was one of 48 constellations that ancient historian and writer Ptolemy (CE 100-170) described. While advances in astronomy mean scientific understanding has replaced myth and the divine, our desire to know these things was inspired by stories told by millennia of curious stargazers.

See the official page from NASA.
Read more on Eridanus.

ESO. NGC 1232. 2017.


Pleiades, 2017   

Enra is a Japanese performing arts company that combines motion graphics and live dance. Performers mix traditional dance with martial arts, animation dance, street dance, and juggling, and weave them with computer graphics and dramatic lighting. In Pleiades, dancers Saya Watatani and Maki Yokoyama interact with a range of light sources, turning the stage into everything from an underwater scene to the night sky. Advances in motion graphics make it possible for light to join the dance.

The Pleiades, also known as The Seven Sisters, is a cluster of seven hot blue stars. The Pleiades are some of the nearest stars to Earth, and their prominence in the night sky has inspired storytellers, artists, and scientists across cultures since the beginning of recorded history.

More on Enra.
More on The Pleiades

Enra. Pleiades. 2017.

Feynman Diagram

In the diagram, we see an electron (e) getting a kick from the electric field of an oxygen nucleus, which is represented as what's called a virtual photon (γ), represented by the squiggly line. This causes the electron to gain energy, which radiates as a photon. What we're seeing is an electron that first becomes virtual, and then decays into a real electron and photon. The concept of a 'virtual' particle is one of the things that makes Feynman diagrams so important. It highlights the connections between force-fields and particles, showing how they become two sides of the same coin.

credit: Frank Wilczek

Warped Space and Time

The gravity that pulls us toward the earth is an effect that all bodies (including our bodies) exert on other objects in space. Each body’s mass creates its own (gravitational) warping of nearby space and also of nearby time. Heavier bodies create bigger distortions.

Neutron stars and pulsars are unique in their density: the size of a large city, they have 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. When a pulsar, which is a rotating neutron star, spins fast, space-time adjusts, slowly. The result is a ripple effect, known as gravitational waves. These are space-time distortions that travel outwards, carrying energy away.

In pre-modern art, Warped Space is a rare theme. For many artists, objects in space were the focus, whereas space was taken for granted. But when scientists began to develop new theories of space itself, it helped artists find new ways to explore it in its own right.


In 1993, Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of a new type of pulsar. Pulsars are rotating neutron stars, and the discovery of these pulsars provided a chance to study one of Albert Einstein's theories of gravitation, and better explore the 'ripples' in space and time caused by gravitational radiation.

The 1993 Nobel Prize
More about the prize


Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St Peter, 1481-2 

When you look at the floor tiles on this painting, your eyes imagine them as square forms, receding into the distance. But they're not square – they're designed with perspective, giving this image a sense of depth. Renaissance artists and mathematicians worked to find geometric forms that would convince human eyes to see a 2-dimensional image as if it's in 3D. They 'warped' their paintings to create sense of infinite worlds receding into the canvas.

Before this time, when artists tried to represent multiple events in a single plane, images quickly became crowded. The use of perspective made it possible to convey space and time in a single image--such as the three in Perugino's painting--without the chaos. This new approach opened up infinite opportunities for exploration and creativity.

See it at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy
Read more about the painting

Perugino, Pietro. Christ giving the keys of the kingdom to St Peter. 1481.
Sistine Chapel, Rome


Orange Peel Carpet, n.d.  

Pamela Davis Kivelson, artist-in-residence at Silicon Valley Artificial intelligence, works with painting, performance, and other media. She often uses art to make viewers think about science, and the scientific process, in new ways. How do you make an orange peel flat? It's not possible to smooth it out, at least without warping the surface.

Similarly, mapmakers have struggled to depict the curved surfaces of planets and other celestial bodies. Doing this requires a projection, a way to translate the spherical surface onto a flat one, and all projections distort some of the elements on the surface. It's difficult to represent a 3D object in a 2D plane. Physics asks us to imagine that there are many more dimensions.

See more about Pamela Kivelson
Read more about frustration and curvature

Kivelson, Davis. Orange peel carpet.


Anamorphic image, n.d. (1600s)  

Anamorphic images are little tricks of math and geometry, mysteries that can be 'solved' by looking in a certain way. In order to see the undistorted image, you need to look from a particular point, or use an object – here, a cylindrical mirror. Artists might use anamorphism as a display of intellect, but they were sometimes used to conceal explicit or politically critical messages. This image comes from the Augsburg Cabinet, a collection of 1000 objects that were donated to a 17th-century Swedish king.

Anamorphism became a tool for play as well as for artistry, and is still commonly used. Today, anamorphism is also used in widescreen cinema formats, including IMAX, where the image is slightly warped in order to appear undistorted to the audience.

See this and the entire Augsburg Cabinet collection online.

Read more about anamorphosis

Reproduced by permission of Gustavianum Musuem,
Photographer: /Mikael Wallerstedt


In this diagram, a spinning neutron star emits gravitons. Much like a photon transmits electromagnetism, the graviton helps us understand how gravity works -- except that we don't yet know if the graviton exists.

As the star spins, it loses energy and starts to spin more slowly. This graviton emission, seen in this Feynman diagram, is how gravitational radiation gets expressed graphically. It's also an example of how Feynman diagrams can help us explore elements that may still only exist in theory, and have never been observed.

credit: Frank Wilczek


The word means 'change of form.' Change is what lays beneath all of art and much of science. Artists turn raw materials into something with form and meaning. Art can show or conceal its change, hint at cryptic connections, or help us imagine something new.

The world of physics is also about constant change. In physics, neutrinos – tiny subatomic particles, lighter than the other elementary particles – change from one form into another as they move through space. For example, one type of neutrino, called an 'electron neutrino' because it reacts only to electrons, might suddenly change, and react also to muons – another type of particle – as if it were a muon neutrino.

It's the particle equivalent of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, and back again. In art as well as science, even when the forms we see look very different, they may have a common origin, and vice versa.


Tiny neutrinos. The second-most numerous particles in the universe (after photons), they speed through everything -- your body, the air, your breakfast, a ten-ton truck – almost never interacting with matter. It took decades before they were actually identified. For a long time they were referred to as the 'ghost particle,' and until recently it was believed they had no mass. But in 2015, Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald won the Physics Prize for their discovery of 'neutrino oscillations'. They found that these tiny particles change their form as they move. Their ability to metamorphose means that neutrinos almost certainly have mass after all, and this discovery opened up new ideas about what elementary particles can be and do.

The 2015 The story of this discovery and prize
A poem about neutrinos (which is now scientifically disproven!)


Vertumnus (Portrait of Rudolf II), c.1590 

This is the most famous work from Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who frequently made images out of plants, fruits, and even books, making a visual joke and mixing two major artistic trends of his time: portraiture and still life. He invites us to ask: is this an imperial portrait, an image of Vertumnus (Roman god of changes in life), or a careful arrangement of fruit and flowers?

It also helps us think about the nature of matter—we're made of the same stuff as fruit and flowers, right down to the subatomic level. Still life paintings were supposed to be read as allegories, reminding the viewer of the mortality of everything living. Someday, even this emperor would be fertilizer. In art as well as science, everything changes, no matter what.

See this painting at Skoklosters Slott
Learn More about Arcimboldo

Arcimboldo, Guiseppe. Vertumnus (portrait of Rudolf II). C. 1590.
Skoklosters Slott, Skokloster


Yugen Gold Blue, 2016 

At first glance, this appears to be a photograph of clouded sun over water – or is it? Miya Ando creates art using a process that's almost like modern alchemy. Descended from a family of Japanese swordmakers, she began welding and smithing as soon as she could physically handle it. To create pigments, she puts aluminum into an electrochemical bath, coating the surface with sapphire crystals, then mixes pigments that help her create effects with light.

Yugen Gold Blue might look like a photograph, but this is a completely different chemical process, metamorphosing steel into the image of a calm blue stretch of water into the horizon. Feynman's diagrams of subatomic interactions use artistic methods to explain science; Ando's work needs science to create and explain it.

Interview with Miya Ando
See more of Miya Ando's work

Anso, Miya. Yukon Gold Blue. 2016.


Cecropia Eclosion, nd 

Biologist, educator and photographer Samuel Jaffe believes in sharing the secrets of nature that are all around us, focusing on the complexity of the caterpillar. Unlike the spontaneous change of a neutrino, the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a moth or butterfly is slow, and costs a lot of energy. The story is different, too: once the caterpillar takes flight in its new form, the change is permanent, while a neutrino can change back. Jaffe uses photography and video to capture the beauty of nature, and the nature of its constant and exciting change. For Jaffe, sharing the joy of discovery is as important as understanding what makes a caterpillar turn into a butterfly. It's more feasible to see transformations in the lifecycle of a backyard insect, but the same is true of physics, that the closer you look, the more action and detail you see.

Learn more at the Caterpillar Lab
Read more about butterfly metamorphosis

Reproduced by permission of the videographer Sam Jaffe


As neutrinos move through space, they may fundamentally change. In the language of Feynman diagrams, we see one kind of particle turn into another, without any interaction occurring. For example, a neutrino which reacts only to electrons - an "electron neutrino" – may suddenly begin to react also to muons, as if it were a muon neutrino, and then to tauons, in the same way.

credit: Frank Wilczek

Hidden Structure

Revealing hidden structure is a creative opportunity, and a chance for profound discovery. For artists, peeling away surfaces, exploding objects (literally or metaphorically), or taking an unexpected perspective can show what's really inside. Sometimes it's a physical structure, and other times it's a social or political one. Demonstrating connections and interiors that are normally blocked from view is a powerful undertaking.

In science, there's almost always more inside even the smallest elements. In contemporary art as well as mathematics, you can combine computing power and artistic sensibility to produce fractal images, worlds within worlds, that recede into even deeper worlds. It's hidden structure all the way down.


For many years, textbooks counted protons and neutrons as “elementary particles”, the smallest unit of particles, which can't be split into smaller pieces. The 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics celebrates work done several decades earlier, by three experimental physicists who developed tools to look inside protons and neutrons. What they found surprised everyone: even simpler particles.

These would come to be called quarks and gluons. They obey elegant laws called Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD), and they really do seem to be elementary particles.

The 1993 The story of this discovery and prize


Bones of the Human Body, Seen from the Side, 1543  

This etching shows a man, in skeletal form, looking at a skull placed on a tomb. On the tomb it says, "Genius survives. All else will die." Today, a scientific image of a human skeleton seems commonplace, but it all started with Vesalius, who was the first to create images like this, which make human anatomy a descriptive art and a medical science. Before him, medical students and practitioners learned about anatomy in piecemeal ways – through individual bones, or by dissecting animals, and relied on ancient classical texts.

But Vesalius dissected humans, and emphasized the view of the human body as a three-dimensional hidden structure. For the illustrations, he might have worked closely with a student of the Renaissance painter Titian. This shows the close link between the arts and sciences, even at the point of origin of a scientific field.

Biography of Andreas Vesalius
Renaissance anatomy, including Vesalius's work

Vesalius, Andreas. Bones of the human body, Seen from the side. 
1543. Vesalius Fabrica (1555).


Julia Set, 2005 

Fractals are self-similar patterns, irregular curves and shapes that are similar regardless of the scale at which they're observed. They were first named in 1975 by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who was contemplating the length of the British coastline. Fractals in the natural world might not exhibit the exact same pattern at every scale, but they have the same structure; in this way, measuring a coastline becomes more difficult, since the smaller the scale you use, the longer the coastline.

Fractal art, which is rendered by software programs, is based on mathematical ideas and, creating images like this one, where every part is a reduced version of the whole. No matter how closely you look, the pattern doesn't change. The Julia Set is a sort of 'lace' that is part of complex mathematics, and was named for French Mathematician Gaston Julia.

More about fractal art:
The coastline paradox

Sokoll. Julia Set. 2005.


The Star, 2015 

What makes a building stand up? What makes a town function? Malaysian artist Jun Hao Ong used 500 meters of steel cables and LED strip lights to turn an unfinished building into a place for a star to nestle and shine. It's based on the concept of a 'glitch', and invites us to think about the hidden structures of buildings, but also the structural dynamics of urban life, where such a building project in the landscape isn't uncommon. It presents as an error, and as an opportunity.

This 'glitch' -- originally a term used to describe a spike in voltage – lights up the formerly busy industrial port of Butterworth, in Penang. Visitors can explore the structure of The Star's cables, as well as the building itself. Each section forms its own experience, but the whole, too, draws our attention to a whole range of hidden structures: architectural, artistic, political and historical.

More on The Star
Jun Ong's website

Ong, Jun. The Star. 2015.


In the language of Feynman Diagrams, we can see the interactions of quarks and gluons inside of a proton or neutron (this one is a proton).

Quarks are charged with 'color', and interact by exchanging gluons. Gluons, like photons, have no mass. But unlike photons, they have color—and they change the colors of quarks they interact with.

In the language of Feynman Diagrams, we can see the interactions of quarks and gluIn the diagram, you can see three quarks, each with a different 'color', represented by the 'particle' dots. When they exchange gluons, this creates a force that 'glues' the quarks together inside the proton. ons inside of a proton or neutron (this one is a proton).

credit: Frank Wilczek


Liberation is an energetic concept. To liberate something or someone – even ourselves – demands more energy than whatever is standing in the way. It can be difficult to depict artistically, and it can be equally challenging to understand and explain scientifically. Fireworks, photographs of particle explosions, moments when tension bursts into exuberant joy – they are all ways to show the energy of liberation.

In particle physics, we can see this in the tiny quarks and gluons that are normally found within protons and neutrons. When they get enough energy, they can break free and ignite fireworks, the 'jets' of other particles. Being able to observe these jets or sprays helps scientists understand what happened just after the most energetic moment in the history of the universe, the Big Bang.


If quarks, antiquarks, and gluons are genuine particles, then why don't we ever see them outside other particles? How does the Strong Interaction keep them from finding the freedom to live on their own?

David Gross, David Politzer, Frank Wilczek shared the 2004 Nobel Prize for their contributions to the forces around quarks. This made it possible to understand Strong Interaction, also known as color interaction, one of the four basic forces in nature, and the one responsible for binding quarks together. They discovered that, with enough energy, these tiny particles-within-particles can become free quarks.

More about 2004 Nobel Prize
Listen to a podcast with Betsy Devine and Frank Wilczek, who made this exhibition happen:


The Atlas Slave, 1530-1534

Michaelangelo never finished this nearly 3-meter high sculpture of the Greek Titan Atlas, who was doomed to hold the weight of the sky on his shoulders. The figure seems to be trying to break free from the marble. Rather than show the moment of release, this statue depicts Atlas struggling. Michaelangelo often created images that were full of moments surrounding releases of tremendous energy, including his famous painting of Creation in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. This was to be one of 24 enormous statues of slaves that Michaelangelo planned to create for a papal tomb in Rome. We can still see the toolmarks from his work, and think about the way artists sometimes seem like they're liberating the sculpture within, rather than creating it anew.

More about this in Florence's Accademia Gallery
See another of these unfinished sculptures at The Louvre

Buonarotti, Michaelangelo. The Atlas Slave.
1530-1534. Academia gallery, Florence.


Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII, 1854  

The French painter Ingres created this image at a time when France was in turmoil. It depicts Jeanne d'Arc (1412-1431), who died as a martyr for France and helped end the Hundred Years' War. It was common in the 1800s for painters like Ingres to use older events and people to comment on contemporary politics. You can see elements of both religion and warfare, both of which connect with liberation – one of the soul and other of the body politic.

Jeanne d'Arc has been referenced in art and popular culture since her lifetime. She usually represents the kind of bravery and commitment we hold up as societal ideals, but which often come with consequences. Liberation is a joyful concept, but as a reality, it can be fraught with tragedy.

See more about this painting on the Louvre's website
Read more about the historical Joan of Arc

Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique. Joan of Arc at the Coronation of
Charles VII. 1854. Louvre, Paris.


Proton-proton collision in CMS, 2010 

Giant physics experiments smash particles together at very high speed. The energy of such collisions can liberate “jets” of new particles, whose images look like fireworks or abstract art. Collide is an arts program at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, to support the close relationship between art and science, and the value of artistic interpretations of science.

This fireworks-like collision was created as part of the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment and shows the moment of energy release of multiple proton-proton collisions. Having artists in residence at places like CERN is especially useful because, just as we can appreciate the scientific perspectives on artistic processes, we can appreciate the artistic perspectives on science, the beauty of nature at every scale, in its own right.

See More about CERN's Collide program
Read more about proton-proton collisions



In this Feynman diagram, an electron and positron enter at the bottom and then collide to produce a virtual photon. The virtual photon then decays into an antiquark and a virtual quark. Finally, the virtual quark decays into a real quark and a gluon.

The quark, antiquark, and gluon eventually can be detected in big detectors. Because of "confinement", they don't appear as single particles. Instead, you can detect their effects when their energy creates streams or "jets" of other kinds of particles.

credit: Frank Wilczek